Question: "What were you thinking about, reflecting on, in this phase that Duos for Doris is recorded? Was there something specific that you were trying to achieve?"
During the early part of January 2003 and the months leading up to the recording, I reflected on what was particular in my relationship with John. How did this fit with my preoccupations during that period? There are a number of strands: atmosphere, the history of Zero, what constitutes the room, the accompanist, types of counterpoint and juxtapositions.
I have become increasingly preoccupied with atmosphere, in particular the kind of atmosphere that one finds surrounding a Mark Rothko painting. When I am in the presence of a Rothko work (also after I have departed and later, upon further reflection), I'm struck not by "whew! what great brush strokes! what an incredible technique! what a painter!", but instead by a feeling of the surrounding atmosphere and its sensation.
Somehow I wanted to move what I'm doing (intention) towards this notion of atmosphere, an activity where we're not aware of technique, of instrument, of playing, of music even, but instead as feeling/sensation suspended in space, perhaps what Feldman meant by music as time, energising the air, making the silence (unintention) audible.
I also connected the thoughts regarding atmosphere with (the history of) Zero. What interested me about zero was, although zero counts for nothing in itself, by placing a zero next to the numeral 1, the 1 becomes 10. Two zeros then 100, etc. So, what would the music of zero be? A music that might be nothing in itself but juxtaposed to another: together transformed. The crucial thought here is transformation by something which was almost nothing in itself.
Thus, I decided that in parts of the duo I might evolve atmospheres, both preserving and augmenting what I appreciate most about John's playing: his touch, musical intelligence, the importance to John of a quote from pianist Clifford Curzon, "People do not know the cost of a phrase", economy of resources. I hoped this zero attitude approach would affect how the piano was perceived, without dominating its qualities.
Of course, Cage pointed out that silence does not exist, but what does exist is sounds we intend and others we do not (intention and unintention). However, for convenience I/we still use the term "silence" to indicate the varying intention for music/sound within the area of improvisation (another term in need of a radical overhaul, since increasingly improvisation is not what's important, what is far more crucial is being aware of the decisive moment). I feel we are gradually moving away from the visceral chic which has characterised much of improvised music's history, and into an investigation of how this silence might be expanded, through tension, stillness, economy, volume, sensation, time pulse etc. towards discrete material.
Clearly the death of John's mother just a few days before the recording had a deep effect on how I perceived the "room". By room, I'm not merely referring to the space we performed in, but an altogether larger imaginary conceptual space, which included supporting John through this difficult closure, compounded with the threat of an imminent and illegal war. A considered, reflective and pensive mood enveloped me. Being strangely aware of John's movements, but not necessarily listening to what he is playing; not reacting to his playing but being affected by it. The act of NOT listening is very important, preferring juxtaposition to confabulation, disturbing the congruity and avoiding Pavlovian laminates.
Non Listening for me is about the intensification of the edge, or frame. This might be seen as an attempt to limit certain aspects of encroachment of the external environment, and it's almost always been part of my musical makeup. I'm very aware that it's almost heretical to praise not listening, but nevertheless I feel there is a place for it. I write these thoughts not needing or wanting to convince anyone of the correctness of these ideas, but only to explain how I approached playing these sessions.
If I attempted not to actively listen to John's piano as my hand descended towards the guitar laid out before me, what might happen? Possibly I might avoid triggering memories of the piano, memories that by definition would take me away from the immediate context and towards some looping representations of past occasions. Clearly this is not an absolute state because I imagine that some memory is needed to comprehend the present. But given that my aim is to focus my attention on the situation in that room, that room will likely contain thousands of references which will in turn trigger memories. The question for me then is how I might relate to whatever is occurring in that room, certainly not with any loquacious clarity but rather with the obmutescence of an object on a shelf.
So what I might mean by not listening is while I'm paying close attention to what I myself am doing, listening/hearing will be only a very small part of my comprehension of that complex room, or possibly listening might play no part at all. Listening will/may have become overwhelmed by the histories of painting/music/the instrument/ noise/the nature of success/the nature of failure/politics/poverty/ life/death/appropriation/who am I?, on and on. Despite these thoughts racing through me as my hand descends, failure beckons, there is nothing to prove, nowhere to go, nothing to do, perhaps there is only the prospect of failure, frustration, ineffectiveness, once more outmanoeuvred by the situation, hopefully to survive, and to carry off the moment another day.
John and I were both members of the Scratch Orchestra, and at its heart, Scratch Music is a music of accompaniment. So for me, this recording is an aspect of scratch music. Music of accompaniment, very English, I think of Bream, of Moore. Both the piano and guitar are amplified, the guitar through electricity and the piano through its resonating table/soundboard. This utilisation of electricity permits the guitar a particular hard-edged abstraction and very high volume, while the piano, like many acoustic instruments, tends towards a lyrical abstraction. In the duo, I tried to juxtapose these abstractions, along with electricity's other characteristic of extremely low volume. Also contrasted is the guitar's ability of producing extremely long notes/sounds against the piano's short and decaying notes. The continuous sound becomes the zero and the piano the digit, quite appropriately fingered by Tilbury, and my fingers hardly ever touching the strings of my guitar.
Oh! But why 'the history of Zero'? I guess because it seems to me that
Zero's history reminds me of the history of silence, "Zero makes shadowy
appearances only to vanish again almost as if mathematicians were searching for it yet
did not recognize its fundamental significance even when they saw it."
And James Wierzbicki points out in Silence as Music, "It seems odd that the English language's most comprehensive reference source on music, the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of music, devotes not even a single sentence to silence."
One could quite well substitute silence in place of Zero.Keith Rowe, July 2003